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Cameron and Osborne must listen to their backbenchers — or face revolt

James Forsyth reviews the week in politics

27 January 2010

12:00 AM

27 January 2010

12:00 AM

James Forsyth reviews the week in politics

When David Cameron and George Osborne move between their suite of offices at the eastern end of the parliamentary estate and the Commons chamber they do so with a pomp that would not embarrass a medieval monarch. A crowd of attendants accompanies them, constantly changing positions but never disrupting the order: staffer, Cameron, staffer, Osborne, staffer. The party moves through the corridors at breakneck speed, heads thrown back, staring into the middle distance rather than looking around at their colleagues. This display certainly succeeds in getting them noticed. But to the Tory MPs whom they march past without even a glance, the whole procession symbolises not power but the remoteness and arrogance of those who are running the party.

By rights, Tory MPs should adore the men who are about to end their 13 years in the political wilderness. Three successive leaders have led the Tories to defeat. Now, Mr Cameron is about to take them to victory in a campaign masterminded by his shadow chancellor, Mr Osborne. But talking to backbench MPs, one is struck by the lack of love for either of them. The reason for this is simple: the infantry feel underappreciated and ignored. As one backbencher told me in exasperation this week, ‘the Cameron machine doesn’t listen to anyone’ — and, worse, it doesn’t even pretend to listen. Even members of the shadow Cabinet can occasionally be found asking journalists for clues as to what the party leadership is up to.

For all his talk about devolving power, Mr Cameron has as Tory leader centralised power at every opportunity. It is a long-standing joke that anyone who works as one of Mr Cameron’s aides automatically outranks any shadow Cabinet member. But this joke is too close to the bone now for many members of the shadow Cabinet. Andrew Lansley was infuriated when his changes weren’t made to the Tories’ draft health manifesto, leading to a slew of stories about Tory splits and U-turns. Others have taken to firing off irate emails when policy is announced without their knowledge.

A sign of the irritation felt by shadow Cabinet members is the fact that the griping which has long gone on in private about the influence of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson, Cameron’s strategy and communications chiefs, is now making it into national newspapers. This can be seen as displacement anger: as always, the favoured courtiers are a proxy for the monarch himself.

At the beginning of his leadership, Cameron did try to keep the troops happy. He set up a series of policy groups that included backbench MPs like John Redwood — and it worked, engaging them in the project. But since these groups disbanded, the backbenchers have been left to wander around discussing how they all feel out of the game. As one normally supportive MP concedes, ‘there is no enthusiasm, no sense of anticipation in the parliamentary party’ about a Tory return to government.

Team Cameron’s decision to base itself away from most MPs in the old Met headquarters, Norman Shaw South, has heightened the sense of distance between the leader and his foot soldiers. As one party official admits, ‘making MPs feel loved is not a priority for us’.

They will come to regret this if (as polls suggest) a Conservative government is returned with a majority of less than 60. In these circumstances, a relatively small group of Conservative MPs — 30 or less — could cause the leadership real trouble. The Cornerstone group of traditionalist Tories MPs has more than 30 members and there is already talk of a ‘Cornerstone whip’, which could put pressure on the leadership on various issues.

Then there are those on the back benches who feel that they have been badly treated by Cameron and would enjoy the chance to repay him. Patrick Mercer, who Cameron sacked for saying that the use of the phrase ‘black bastard’ was part and parcel of army life, was left so isolated that he agreed to work for Gordon Brown on a homeland security review. Graham Brady, who resigned over grammar schools, is now regarded as the favourite to be the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. The election to this post of the one Tory to quit Cameron’s front-bench team over a difference on policy would send a clear message to the leadership.

The ranks of the disaffected will swell considerably by the end of the first week of a Cameron government. Any existing Tory MP who is not given a job straightaway will conclude that they are never likely to get one and so have little to lose. There is already mumbling from the over-50s about being victims of a cult of youth: that the party is led by young men who are, in turn, advised by even younger men and the odd ‘celebrity oldie’ like Ken Clarke.

Mr Cameron’s allies might well dismiss many of these critics as bitter cranks. But as Charles Clarke has shown, lone wolves can destabilise a leader if they are determined enough. The dissenters will have several issues to play with: both the proposed defence cuts and the refusal of Dominic Grieve to repatriate powers over English justice from Strasbourg could cause trouble before the end of the year.

Crucially, if Mr Cameron wins a majority, most of his MPs will be newly elected. He will, like Tony Blair in 1997, be a leader of a party which has just had a massive transfusion of new blood. But surveys of the likely 2010 intake show them to be anything but Cameron groupies. Of those candidates who are fighting winnable seats, only a third were on the initial A list of priority candidates drawn up by Central Office. The remaining two thirds know that they were not the leadership’s first choice, something that is not likely to increase their loyalty to the Cameron operation.

Almost all Tory MPs will face reselection if Cameron, as he has suggested, orders an instant boundary review to decimate the number of MPs. The prospect of such reselection battles will make them pay more attention to local opinion than the opinion of the whips office.

The Tory leadership knows that the cuts it will have to make to right the public finances mean that it will become very unpopular very rapidly. But it has not grasped that this means that it must secure the loyalty of its MPs. This will require it to listen more, rehabilitate the odd leper (to show that good behaviour in exile is rewarded) and make MPs feel that they are partners in power — not lobby fodder. Before the election, the party will stick together. But afterwards, if he doesn’t change his ways, Mr Cameron might well find that his book of bastards ends up being bigger than John Major’s.

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